When Carrie Underwood’s band broke into the opening strains of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” at the Stagecoach Festival Saturday, it seemed like business as usual. The country superstar’s Guns N’ Roses fangirl-ism is well known, and she’s incorporated GNR numbers into her set on a regular basis before, even showing an aptitude for appropriating Axl Rose’s snaky frontman moves as her own. But within a few bars, she let loose the closely held secret that, tonight, paradise would be a shared experience. “Welcome to the greatest night of my life,” Underwood shouted. “Give it up for Axl Rose!”
Her rock god wasn’t limiting himself to just one song. The telltale lack of a hug at the end of “Sweet Child” was a tipoff that more was on the way. “Did you think we were through?” Underwood bellowed, as her band then broke into a potent and letter-perfect arrangement of the GNR number she’s sung even more often on the road, “Paradise City.”
And then that was it — no reciprocal Rose-co-fronted version of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” or “How Great Thou Art,” unfortunately, to name two Underwood setlist staples that had already occurred earlier in the set. “I can’t believe we thought we should have more songs after this,” quipped Underwood, after Rose left the stage and she was left to close out her headlining sets with three more solo numbers packed with a little less gunpowder.
Underwood may have been speaking only a bit hyperbolically when she made a greatest-night claim: Her history with “Paradise City” goes back far enough that it’s on record that she performed the song when she headlined Stagecoach all the way back in 2008.
Underwood was coming off a residency at Resorts World Las Vegas that wrapped up — for the time being, at least — on April 1. The Stagecoach show was a substantially different one, and not just because of the bucket-list 10-minute cameo by Rose. Gone, of course, were the aerial rope tricks and getting drench while singing in a waterfall. Added were a lot more fireworks and pyro than the enclosed space of a casino theater could withstand… but also the live premieres of two previously unheard songs, “Denim and Rhinestones” and “Crazy Angels.” Those and the already released “Ghost Story” are teasers for an upcoming album, “Denim and Rhinestones,” that will arrive June 10.
Underwood also sang an oldie from the “Blown Away” album that hasn’t been much revived in concert, “See You Again,” a ballad about anticipating reuniting with dead loved ones in the afterlife — and she invoked Naomi Judd, who was reported to have died early in the day, in the introduction.
While Underwood mentioned Judd, the act that preceded her on the main stage, Brothers Osborne, took their tribute a step further. Without even saying a word about Naomi Judd, they simply broke into a touching acoustic version of one of the Judds’ signature songs, “Why Not Me,” that was heartbreaking in its simplicity and what was left unsaid.
Brothers Osborne also had a powerful moment when they compared their last experience at Stagecoach with the present one, both on a technical and highly personal level.
“Four years ago we had a terrible, terrible set,” TJ Osborne said. “I went home and thought, ‘I don’t think we can do this again.’ And we had to wait a long time, and a lot has changed since then, but tonight we’re out here to redeem ourselves.” And part of that redemption was not just meeting the moment better musically, but coming back after TJ came out and owning that.
“There are a lot of preconceived notions about country music fans,” the singer said. “But thousands of you are out here watching a gay man perform tonight. This is the change I want to see. Thank you so much. This is incredible. This is country music.”
The middle night of Stagecoach 2022 wrapped up as another openly gay performer, Orville Peck, closed things out with an after-hours set in the Palomino tent.
Earlier in the Palomino, traditionalist Cody Jinks packed the tent and then some, with as big an overflow crowd as might have been seen at that end of Stagecoach, and Margo Price brought a more alternative version of country to the venue, quipping, “I do country music for people who do psychedelics.”
Stagecoach wraps up Sunday with a headlining set by Luke Combs and additional performances by Smokey Robinson, Yola, Locash, the Black Crowes, Rhiannon Giddens, Cody Johnson, the Mavericks, Diplo, Lindsay Ell, Nikki Lane, Waylon Payne, Hayes Carll and others. Most of the performances are being livestreamed on Stagecoach’s YouTube channel; see the streaming schedule here. (Read our coverage of Stagecoach 2022’s opening day here.)